Dame Margaret was a Liberal politician who was Australia’s first woman in Cabinet with a ministerial portfolio, the first female senator in Cabinet and the first woman to hold a major economic portfolio as Minister for Finance during the Fraser Government. She was also Minister for Education and Minister for Social Security.
Marie was the first woman in Australia to head up a national statutory authority when she was appointed chair of the National Social Welfare Commission by the Whitlam Government in 1972-1975. After the 1975 election, Dame Margaret was instrumental in having Marie selected as the Director of the Office of Childcare, which fell in her ministerial jurisdiction. Under both women, the Australian Commonwealth began a series of social reforms and supports in the areas of school day care, supporting Aborginal children and building a program for female refugees
The late Susan Ryan AC, re-appropriating her own election slogan, said of Margaret Guilfoyle “If anyone’s performance should have established that a woman’s place was in the Cabinet, it was Margaret Guilfoyle’s.”
“I knew Margaret in Melbourne when she was very much the up-and-coming young woman in women’s section of the Liberal party,” Marie told Women on Boards.
“She was in the great tradition of Australian female Liberal politicians. One of those doughty women senators from Victoria who had no hesitation in taking their own Government to task if they needed it, ‘Marie remembered with a chuckle.
“One of a group of women who were genuine feminist liberals – before second wave feminism came along - and who really stood for something.”
Marie said that Dame Margaret was mentored by Dame Ivy Wedgwood DBE, who served as a Liberal Senator for Victoria from 1950 to 1971 and was undoubtably influenced by her work in the areas of health insurance and care for the chronically ill.
“Dame Margaret was a person who took a great deal of pride in seeing her role being one of helping people. I remember quite often she would summon me to meet with people to see if there if there was any way we could help – even if it was outside our portfolio of childcare.”
Marie recalled one such incident when there had been a series of shocking suicides of young women in a multi-storey housing commission block in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Dame Margaret organised to meet with a group of women in one of the apartments to talk of the horrors of life in the flats that had led the young women to suicide.
“She was profoundly engaged concerned human being and a very competent Minister, who sometimes conveyed the air that Cabinet meetings could be somewhat trying, telling her head of department: “Really Marie, even though we are much better than all the men, I just have to stay calm and controlled on the surface while paddling like a duck underneath.”
When Fraser lost government, Dame Margaret told Marie she that for the rest of her term she was going to make sure she could contribute to good governance. Which she duly did, Marie said.
“She was a delightful human being – who was always at great pains to point out that she was not Australia’s answer to Mrs Thatcher, a woman whose policies she did not admire.
Vale Dame Margaret and thank you Marie Coleman.